Our road to homeschooling

close view of an uneven crack in concrete, surrounded by red sand excavated by the ants who live in there ©careerusinterruptus.com

We never planned to. The Skeptic and I were great at school, and I’d been deeply committed to my career before stepping away to have kids, so we – quite reasonably – expected I’d find new work once they settled at school.

They never did.

That’s not the school’s fault. It was straight-up AWESOME.

They did everything right. No – better than right, because they taught me everything about understanding howbehaviour communicates needs, about the diversity of needs and behaviours, about teaching and modelling emotional regulation and non-violent conflict resolution.

I know! Not what you’d expect from a school, but then, this place was truly special. Their democratic, play-based approach to learning informed everything, and it was so small, it worked. As a community school, families and former students were always welcome, so there was plenty of help when things got messy – which was often. For several years, that extra pair of hands was mine. I logged a lot of observational hours, I cleaned up all sorts of … stuff, and I learned HEAPS.

My kids, not so much.

Mr Pixel, of course, came with significant challenges: chronic ill health, anxiety, perfectionism, SAF, and a brain teeming with Big Questions. He had no idea what to make of kids who just wanted to run round yelling and throwing leaves at each other, nor of work that focussed on tiny little concepts like words and sums. He didn’t participate much and was terribly anxious about everything he did do, so, although he was well liked, easily accomplished any work he did attempt, and even had a teacher who specialised in giftedness devise work tailored to his interests, it’s fair to say he never saw the point. Therefore he bitterly resented my making him go, and he sure as hell wasn’t staying without me. (Did I mention the SAF?) He was able – so able – but school for him was war.

CraftyFish, on the other hand, slotted straight into being the fastest runner throwing the most leaves as she led a small posse of girls through 900 activities a day. She’d race in, belt out her work in two minutes flat (almost illegible but 100% correct), and race back out to add another layer of monkey-bar blisters to her hands.

For two years, this was fine. Her wonderful teacher let CraftyFish work at her own pace and level (wherever that might be on any given day) and handled her emotional outbursts with a skill and sensitivity I’m still trying to emulate. But instead of allowing CraftyFish to write stories and then work on corrections, for instance, her next teacher insisted that story-writing came after mastering /ee/ spellings. Way to slam the brakes on, lady!

Meanwhile, the social side was also fraying, as some in her posse began excluding her. Unfortunately this teacher’s skills didn’t extend beyond, “Our rule is kindness, okay? So be kind, please, girls,” which was even less effective than it sounds. (She was new and not adapting well.)

When CraftyFish developed visual migraines from the stress and anxiety, age seven, the writing was on the wall. We battled through another two years (!) because CraftyFish wanted to win back her crown, because I had chronic fatigue and was still desperately hoping they’d go to school so I could get a freaking rest, and because, sigh, my kids’ SAF didn’t come from nowhere.

But when, after five years of solid struggle, I found myself sobbing all the way to the first day of year six, even I had to admit defeat.

That was hard, you know? Really fucking painful. Parents are told, we’re responsible for everything our kids do or don’t do (and when they do it). We’re supposed to control our own destinies, too: set goals, work hard, persist, success, right? I’d been quite good at that, pre-kids. Now I was finally accepting that I couldn’t even get my kids to do the most basic thing (it seemed) every other kid managed – enjoyed – rocked!

And my kids knew it. Having emotional OE up the wazoo meant that by the time we quit, all three of us were pulpy with misery, anxiety, shame, failure, frustration, and whatever the word is for, “what on earth is WRONG with us?!” The Skeptic, who is far more institutionalised than I am, was baffled and frankly terrified as we finally staggered off-piste.

So I’m sorry to say, we didn’t come to homeschooling via lofty principals, cool appraisal, and/or a thoughtful response to our kids’ needs. It was more like one of those old cartoons where the jalopy’s wheels pop off one by one, the chassis ploughs into the mud, springs and bolts fly every which way, and once it’s finally ground to a halt, the doors and bumpers drop off as well. It was pretty much exactly what you don’t want for your family.

Why am I sharing this?

Well, rumour has it that when, after months trapped in the ice, Endurance finally sank in Antarctic waters, Ernest Shackleton said, “Ship and stores are gone, boys, so now we’ll go home.”

That was the chance I had. All that time I’d been learning about our wiring, and about the parent I wanted to be, while still bombing down the same road. Wrecked, we had to spend time repairing our health, our emotions, and our relationships, and reevaluating our values, needs, and goals.

Since then, we have—well, this side of adolescence I won’t risk saying “we’re home”, because any second now the kids will start up heir own jalopies and they’re bound to head down a few wrong roads themselves.

Point is, sometimes we have to crash and burn, to get our own attention. It’s awful and painful, but it is survivable. Modelling self-forgiveness, the process of grief and recovery, learning to change course according to your needs – those are absolutely essential life skills, especially for out-of-the-box kids growing into a world of increasing uncertainty – and crashing out makes you do it. That’s not ‘silver-lining’ BS, btw. It’s your lifeline: kindness and compassion for yourself and your kids is how you survive.

Of course, if you read this as a cautionary tale and change course before the wheels start flying? That’s even better.

What we learned on the road

Wollumbin / Mt Warning, NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

The Skeptic and I both came from families that not only moved countries regularly, but also determinedly exploredwherever we were, so it was perhaps inevitable that as soon as we read this delightful book about a family’s three month round-Australia camping trip, I’d begin planning. Look at that gorgeous Mum, smiling as they shared the experience of a lifetime. I could do that! I figured, when the kids were 6 and 8 – old enough to remember it, wouldn’t miss much school. Perfect. 

Bless my starry-eyed sleep-deprived socks.

I clearly hadn’t yet twigged that the non-stop-talking-and-moving was going to be a permanent feature, one that ramps up if you put a seat-belt on it for any length of time. So while I did know about Crazy Hour, I hadn’t quite realised what that looks like after four hours in a car. I definitely had no inkling just how recalcitrant self-directed my little learners would turn out to be.

Nonetheless we took our first trip just past their 7th and 9th birthdays, driving 3000 kilometres over a fortnight. A masterpiece of planning if I do say so myself, our five destinations through south-east and central Queensland took in the Granite belt, cattle country, coal-mining country, and the coast. We visited sites important to Aboriginal Peoples and a Bushranger’s hideout; we toured an old sapphire mine; saw wild emu, echidna, and platypus (kangaroos and wallabies too common to mention), went whale-watching and gem fossicking. Apart from the unsurprising lesson that we do not do well staying in one room – let alone a tent, my god, what was I thinking?! – the whole thing was undeniably marvellous, start to finish.

Oh, fine, there’s a joey for you, and a humpback whale and yes that’s a real live echidna and an emu running away through long grass. ©careerusinterruptus.com

So when my feet started itching again three years later, we mapped a similar trip in the opposite direction, through northern and central New South Wales. This trip coincided with the 50th moon landing anniversary, so we visited three of Australia’s biggest telescopes and spent an evening at a private observatory where we saw Saturn’s rings. We bathed in a hot spring at night, visited the Western Plains Zoo, a private geological museum, a koala hospital, a settler’s homestead, a ruined colonial prison, and looked out at the Three Sisters, one of Australia’s most iconic vistas.

Australia Telescope Compact Array at Narrabri; the Australian Astronomical telescope, and the Dish. ©careerusinterruptus.com

And there were so many activities we couldn’t fit in – we didn’t pan for gold at Port Macquarie, for instance, or pick cotton near Moree, or go on the scenic railway at Katoomba, nor into the caves at Jenolan – partly because I was trying to be more relaxed (ha). And partly because, sigh, recalcitrant learners let you know when they’re relentlessly refusing to be impressed. (“You’re making me look at rocks. Again. Yay.”)

Meeni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo – the Three Sisters, Katoomba NSW ©careerusinterruptus.com

I wouldn’t call it road-schooling, exactly, because while the kids now know the gist of land and industry, I doubt they retained a single ‘fact’. We listened to James Herriott, Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, we did no “work”, and nobody’s interest in history or big science was remotely piqued. (“Now you’re making me look at buildings. Again. Yay.”)

What we gained was far less tangible: Enduring regular 40-minute waits where lanes were blocked for repairs on the Newell Highway, with views that mostly looked like this.

scenes from the Newell Highway, NSW. ©careerusinterruptus.com

Discovering that we can sleep three nights in a shipping container with a frog in the toilet and no TV. Or in a tent, with the toilet built into a water tank next door, and overnight temperatures around 5ºC. Sitting in the car by the highway, in rain so hard you can’t see the end of the bonnet, listening to that roar, feeling the car shake as trucks thunder recklessly past. Surviving snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef in winter. (Not the same as your winter, true, but still cold enough to make you wonder why on earth we did it.) Watching Mr Pixel’s water bottle bounce and tumble the 200 metres we’d just climbed up Bald Rock, visiting towns with populations smaller than our local high school, being outdoors under a VAST night sky, steering a yacht. Even better, watching the yacht’s captain simply ignore his cut foot bleeding all over the deck while he navigated away from shore (my goodness that blew their minds). We saw the drought up close and listened to third-generation cattle farmers talk about it. Five months later when the disdained landscape was burning, it meant something to them.

Of course, similar experiences could be had from home. We’re ideally positioned here between the Great Dividing Range and a bay full of islands, with rock pools and rainforest, bush and beach, all within an hour. We could and should get out into it, far more than we do.

But it seems to be easier to step outside your comfort zone, when you’re already outside it. Basic physics, I suppose. When your backside is comfortably nestled into its sofa indent, moving it requires an enormous input of energy, and it’s a fact that sofa indents exert a unique gravity. You have to go pretty far to escape its pull.

When your backside indent is 1700kms away, however, you might as well climb the escarpment, even if you’ve never done anything like that before, it’s intimidating, and your shoes rub so much you have to walk almost all three kilometres barefoot. You may as well get on that boat, or in that water, or walk through a gate warning of snakes. You argue less about getting out of bed when it’s not your bed, and you’re more invested in keeping track of your stuff if you know you’ll never see that town again.

For kids who’d prefer never to challenge themselves and never to be uncomfortable, those lessons are truly priceless. It says everything that, last time I was planning a trip I asked my friends to sedate me if I ever thought of doing it again, but two years later here I am, tapping my toes, looking at maps, wondering when the government will figure out this virus business enough to open up borders between the States, and where we’ll go when we do. My eye is on Tasmania.

We resume our regular programming

tap tap, Hey, is this thing on? Can you hear me?

SQUEEERRAANNNGGGG!!!!

Yikes! Sorry! Guess it’s working again, heh. Sorry about that.

Well, much as I’d love to report that this month’s silence was down to us finally winning the lottery and fulfilling our lifelong dream of living on room service in the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel while the house is renovated to include a second storey entirely committed to hobby space, the truth is of course more mundane.

I had to move the website to a new host, and even with help that process exceeded both my skillset and my attention span. In the end it was solved through a quick exchange with the host’s marvellous help people, but for most of the past month that was an adulting too far.

It’s “winter” – if you can call it that when we still have mid-20s daytime temps – which means I want to spend all my time out getting dirt under my nails. People more organised than I are already harvesting their autumn planting. But the timber borders were all laying at about 30 degrees from horizontal, so after tearing out cubic meterage of hyacinth bean and sweet potato, we did the whole, digging-holes-and-concreting-in-posts thing and then I spent several happy days laying down manure and lucerne, transferring good sexy compost into garden beds. The avocado tree didn’t survive its transplant although the lime tree, which is only a foot high, started flowering immediately it was moved. I’ve finally got chard and spinach in, plus some optimistic peas, and the chook forage patch is growing: arrowroot, comfrey and Brazilian spinach (Alternanthera sissoo). We are getting 3-4 eggs a day, perfect miracles. I’ve been walking, too, mapping routes up and down all the hills in the neighbourhood, trying to counteract all the hours I seem to be spending behind the wheel at the moment, driving from the centre of Brisbane to its farthest northern reaches on various errands.

Indoors the usual circus continues: the oven joined the list of this year’s deceased appliances, prompting another wild round of over-thinking and spreadsheeting, and I replaced my HP laptop with a Mac so nothing works how I expect – hence the lack of photos for this post. We satisfied Mr Pixel’ yearning for a 3-D printer and all of a sudden my recalcitrant learner is teaching himself TinkerCad, slicing software and a lot of blah blah blah. CraftyFish’s new laptop has choked a few times which hasn’t suited us AT ALL, because she’s started school – there will have to be a whole ‘nother post or three about that – and someone asked exactly the right question leading me to rewrite two key conversations in the fiction MS I thought was finished. I’m really happy about that and very much hope I get my mojo back to, y’know, actually DO the writing.

Instead I have been jamming – a massive batch of sweet chilli sauce, a smaller one of lime and gin marmalade (limes from the neighbour’s prolific tree), and strawberry that hasn’t set and so will be all tipped back in the pot for a bit more boiling this afternoon. The other day I took Mum for a slow walk up the street, and when I gently took her arm because it looked like she was veering into a parked car, she pulled away, deliberately rubbed her cardiganed arm along the length of it, gleefully declared, “I’m dusting it for them!” and then laughed, so, yeah, she’s FINE. (Though Mr Pixel, who accompanied us, may never recover.)

And I’ve been doing an absolute ton of social stuff, both IRL and online, where I’m feeling my way into using my powers for good with a fabulous new friend who lives in Switzerland. (Isn’t that GREAT? Isn’t it AWESOME that we can make these connections and chat in real time with someone 16000kms away, whilst eating dinner and watching back episodes of Would I Lie To You?) (Oh and if you have never watched that show, give it a whirl. If David Mitchell doesn’t remind you of your kid, Lee Mack will.)

Ooh that reminds me, while I was looking for that episode I saw something that reminded me, I bought some gorgeous fabric in an op-shop that I want to make into trousers.

… Poor new friend. She thinks I’m like this because we’re in lockdown. Ah, well. She’ll learn.